Tbilisi has long been famous for the piping-hot sulphur water that bubbles out of the ground along the banks of the Mtkvari River; in fact, that’s where the city gets it name. So, not surprisingly, Tbilisi has its fair share of bathhouses, all centered around the same district, Abanotubani. The famous bathhouses of Tbilisi have been written about by such famous authors as Pushkin and Dumas, so there was no doubt that I had to give them a try. Plus, I am a veteran of numerous voyages through the Middle East, and therefore I am well equipped to handle the bathhouse experience.
Tbilisi in February can be fairly temperate, but still chilly and with a lot of rain. So I picked a grey, cloudy day full of rain and biting cold to make my way to Abanotubani to give the bathhouses a try. Having no guidebook or anybody telling me what to expect, I packed a backpack with sandals, a bathing suit, some mint-olive soap I had bought in Aleppo, and a towel and hoped on the metro.
As you walk into the old city to find the baths, all you have to do is follow your nose; the pungent smell of sulphur will lead you right to them. Once in Abanotubani, you will have a large selection of bathhouses to choose from, most of them partially underground. Since I had no tips otherwise, I decided on the Orbeliani Baths, a large complex with elaborate façade of blue tile reminiscent of Central Asia. Upon entry, I was immediately lost. There were women drying their hair in the lobby and various men milling about. I noticed a cash register and went up to try and figure things out. Through pantomime, I established that one go in the baths was $2. I paid got a receipt and then looked around, confused as to where to go. Eventually, the cash-register lady pointed me upstairs to the men’s section
At the top of the stairs was a locker room where a worker took my receipt and then unlocked a locker for me. He motioned for me to put my stuff in there. I did, and then looked around. All the rest of the men were getting naked and heading into the baths. The nudity was a bit of a surprise, because I am used to Middle Eastern baths, where you wrap a towel around your waist and DO NOT let it drop. But this is Georgia, and people get naked. So I followed suit (or without suit rather).
The actual bath was a tiled complex with two tiers. There was a row of showers and then a large pool full of hot water. On the second floor there was a place to sit and take in the steam, as well as a cold-water pool. Not really sure of what order to do things in, I started in the showers and scrubbed myself clean with a loofah and my mint-olive soap. For a sulphur bath, the smell really isn’t that overpowering. After the shower, I decided to take a dip in the hot tub, which was plenty hot. From there it was off to the steam room, combined with intermittent dips in the cold-water pool.
Eventually I noticed some benches where some workers were giving massages. One of them asked if I would like one, and recalling the wonderful massages I had had in Syria and Turkey, I agreed. He then threw me onto the tile bench, doused me with water, and then went to work, kneading every ounce of tension out of my muscles. After about 5 minutes, he motioned that it was over, and I retreated to the hot tub for a final dip.
All in all, I spent a good hour and a half in the baths, and it was the most relaxing experience of the whole trip. Drying off back in the locker room, I could only think about the bitter cold and rain that awaited me outside, but the bath had left me rejuvenated and with an extra bounce in my step, so I was ready to face the wind.